Nannerl O. Keohane: It makes a difference to have power
Q: You talked about tradition and being part of a history. As a leader, how do you respect that while also being innovative, wielding your power or making your mark?
One behavior that you need to be alert to as a leader is having a vision of an institution when you walk in. I don’t think you should come in with a vision to an institution that you don’t know extremely well, because you don’t know enough about it to come in and say, “This is where we ought to go”; you need to get to know it well.
For example, when I came [to Duke], the question of whether all of East Campus should be a freshman campus was very much on the table. Everybody wanted a decision right away. I said, “I can’t make that decision until I know more about Duke.”
And I waited a year before I recommended to the board that we move in that direction. It was really important not to walk in with a vision -- “I want to change Duke and make a freshman campus,” etc. -- without knowing the institution. If I’d walked in off the streets and made that decision, it would’ve been impossible.
The balance between stewardship and innovation is a very difficult one.
We changed the face of Duke’s campus profoundly, built a number of wonderful buildings, including the new building for the Divinity School. It closed off the Chapel Quad by doing so, but we did so with sensitivity to the campus, thinking about this campus, which we regarded as a precious resource to be stewarded and as a place that also needed innovation.
There were buildings that were crumbling, and there were cul-de-sacs where you couldn’t find your way from main campus out to the science buildings. We saw innovation as a way to preserve the things that were important about Duke. That’s innovation in the spirit of the institution that you serve.
Q: How has your faith life influenced your work as a leader?
My father was a Presbyterian minister, and my mother wrote very well-received works in Christian education. They were both teachers, and Mom was a dean at a Presbyterian college in North Carolina, St. Andrews College. So my youth was spent in a home where faith was very important.
I went to church every Sunday; my allowance got docked if I talked to my friends when I was sitting in church. I played the piano at Wednesday evening prayer service. So it was very important in my growing up. Through the time I was in college, I was head of chapel at Wellesley College.
Over a period of time since then, faith has been cyclically an important part of my life and my leading, but not always. I’ve gone through periods where faith is important and periods where it’s not, periods where I go to church every Sunday and periods when I don’t go at all, except maybe for Christmas Eve.
When I was leading Duke, I was a member of an Episcopal church with my family. My daughter-in-law is deeply Episcopalian, and her family is too, so I would go partly to be with them, to be with my grandchildren and my son and daughter-in-law every Sunday, but it was also important to me to have that ritual and the church year as part of my life.
As I was finishing at Duke, the rector preached two sermons that I just couldn’t take; one was on the subjection of women and one was on the evils of homosexuality. I wrote him letters each time to tell him that I disagreed profoundly with him and thought he ought to give people a chance to talk about these issues instead of taking the power of the pulpit to just preach at us. He basically said I didn’t know what I was talking about.
I decided if there’s no dialogue about this, I don’t need to sit there, so I did not go back to that church, and for a variety of reasons haven’t formed a new church affiliation in the ensuing years, but my hunch is someday I will again.
Q: Do you think that your formation in the Presbyterian tradition has affected your work, even if you’re not going to a Presbyterian church on Sundays anymore?
Presbyterianism thinks a lot about leadership and governance. Presbyterians, with everything from the presbytery to the synod to the general assembly, think a lot about how you structure and govern a church.
It’s very much a church that is oriented toward both lay and clerical participation at every level, but it’s also a church that has a hierarchy of participatory bodies, without anybody like a bishop at the very top, but also not only congregationally based.
Q: In the chapter on gender in your book, you say that at both Duke and Wellesley the influence of the institution on leadership was greater than the influence of gender. How would you describe the impact of gender throughout your own career?
One of the things I say in that chapter is that some people would answer the question, “Do women lead differently from men?” -- some people would say, “Well, yes, of course.” I wouldn’t put it that simply. I think women lead in different ways as individuals.
You can’t say all men lead the same -- Jimmy Carter and Genghis Khan. Margaret Thatcher and Mother Teresa -- all women don’t lead the same, and they all don’t lead differently in the same way.
The way you are raised, and the way you’re socialized as a child, has important implications for your future, whatever you’re doing. How you were treated, the culture that you lived in, the experiences you had when you were one and two and three and four and five are going to shape the way you work as a grown-up. That is true for how you lead, as well as how you do anything else.
Clearly, not every woman is socialized the same way. It depends on culture, history, personality and family, etc., but in every culture we know anything about, to some extent at least, girls are socialized differently from boys. In some cultures it’s profoundly different; in others it’s more modestly different, but it’s different.
My argument would be that that has to make a difference in the way you exercise power. Margaret Thatcher deliberately tried to get away from being thought a woman leader, tried to rule -- lead -- just like the guys. And she did, but there were also ways in which she behaved in a fashion that some people would’ve regarded as typically feminine.
Most women leaders combine attributes of themselves that might be thought stereotypically feminine and others that are not in order to provide a style of leadership that works for them personally.
The bottom line is, I hope that there will come a day when we don’t have those stereotypes, so that pieces of ourselves that become engaged in our leadership aren’t typecast as, “Oh, that’s a woman’s way of leading; oh, that’s a man’s,” and that we get past that and have people lead in whatever way works best for them.